J&M Brown Co. Spotlights Historic Boston Theater, Supplies Full Electric Renovation

Photos: Patrick Farrell, courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group

J&M Brown Co. Inc. (JMB), Jamaica Plain, Mass., provided the electrical construction and highly detailed lighting renovations for the Ambassador Theatre Group's (ATG) historic restoration of the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston. The eight-month project concluded in June 2018 and involved a full electrical restoration and renovation of the theater.

The renovation of Boston’s legendary venue kept the building’s original 1900 design, while introducing modern back-of-the-house technology and efficiencies. The project, done in collaboration with Elkus Manfredi Architects, Consigli Contracting Co. and the ATG, involved elaborate electrical and lighting renovations. Project Manager Patrick O’Neil and Assistant Project Manager Nelson Barrantes headed the JMB project team, and the IBEW Local No. 103 field crew completed installations.

JMB provided comprehensive relighting for the theater, including cleaning and relamping house fixtures, new aisle/egress lighting fixtures, and new backstage lighting; adding dimming controls to existing lighting fixtures; furnishing and installing customized floor boxes for dedicated power feeds to removable theater seats, which provide power to seat lights; and providing power to theatrical lighting controls. The EC also added lighting to lounge areas around the theater.

The Emerson Colonial now features an upgraded electrical distribution system. JMB conducted a comprehensive survey of the theater’s existing system. While the existing distribution system remained, the contractor installed new distribution systems for power, lighting and audio/video equipment.

Photos: Patrick Farrell, courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group
Photos: Patrick Farrell, courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group

Renovating a historic theater provides unique challenges.

“One of the most critical aspects of the project was the care that was required in our electrical work so as to not damage the theater’s antique interior facades, which features highly detailed custom plaster scrolling,” O’Neil said. “The theater features highly decorative original woodwork with historic original lighting fixtures that required significant repair as well as the installation of new circuitry.”

In some ways, the work was the same as renovating an occupied office.

“We show the same respect toward current finishes in an office setting as we did in the theater with restored murals,” O’Neil said. “The planning and preparation was a little more extreme, because we needed to think about all of the different aspects. Could we lean a stepladder against the wall? Should we order scaffolding?”

For instance, to relamp and rewire historic chandeliers, JMB lowered them on hoists from the ceiling above the theatrical seating area. They repaired the lamp holders and sockets, replaced spliced or degraded wiring and upgraded the lamps to LEDs. The 58 ring-lights surrounding the chandeliers were also rewired and relamped.

The theater also received a new marquee. JMB installed new power circuitry for LCD screens on the marquee and a GSMAT “Smart Glass” exterior display screen above it, which is the same technology seen in signs on the buildings in Times Square. Additional lighting included furnishing and installing multiple fixtures in the marquee to project light above and below the theater’s entrance and custom-made exit signs.

Photos: Patrick Farrell, courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group
Photos: Patrick Farrell, courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group

“We had to visit the structural steel of the marquee before it came to the site, so we could install our wiring and pathways, because we would not have had an opportunity to do so once it was welded into place,” O’Neil said.

To upgrade the theater’s existing audio/video systems, JMB installed a new speaker system with raceways and wiring running to the stage, backstage, back-of-house and front-of-house areas. The speaker system also connects back to multiple audio/video network rack locations. The EC kept the footprint of the previous audio/video system, so the theater can use the previous distribution power.

JMB also installed new life safety equipment, in order to integrate it into the overall layout and have minimal impact on theatrical operations. JMB had already upgraded the theater’s fire alarm system five years earlier. O’Neil worked on both theater projects.

ATG entered into a long-term lease agreement with Emerson College to complete capital improvements for the theater. The college will operate Emerson Colonial Theatre and invest several million dollars in upgrades.

The first performance after the theater’s renovations was a pre-Broadway engagement of Moulin Rouge! The Musical in June.

About the Author

Marlena Chertock

Freelance Writer

Marlena Chertock is a former editorial intern at Electrical Contractor magazine who now writes for the magazine as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, NBC News, News21, WTOP and The Gazette. Contact...

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